Girls are doing worse than boys when it comes to their general wellbeing at school, a new study reveals.

When asked to rate from 1–5 their answer to the question, “How have you been feeling this week?”, boys and girls revealed noteworthy differences. On average, boys had a statistically significant higher average general wellbeing score (3.69) than girls (3.46).

Boys also rated specific wellbeing domains (resilience, belonging and safety) as higher than girls (3.94 versus 3.79). Overall, as reported in The Australian, “boys were twice as likely as girls to state that they felt ‘great’.”

The results were part of the Wellbeing For Learning report by Pivot Professional Learning. It was conducted in 50 Australian and New Zealand schools over a 10-week period in late 2021—with many of the 30,000 students involved in the middle of COVID-19 lockdown.

While the results may partly have been caused by COVID-19 restrictions and home-based learning, it would be fair to assume some of the issues are more broadly felt regardless of the pandemic.

“Of concern is the large proportion of students who . . . are not feeling positively about their wellbeing. . . . [It] equates to nearly half of all respondents (47%) who are feeling less than good about their wellbeing,” the report pointed out.

The biggest challenge to wellbeing in schools

The survey revealed students often felt isolated at school and unable to ask for help when faced with a problem. It’s an issue felt more profoundly by girls, as well as students from schools in low-income areas.

“Every single measure is lower for low-income students; they had less feelings of safety, resilience and belonging,” says Pivot Professional Learning chief executive Amanda Bickerstaff.

Relevant: 10 books to teach kids about identity and belonging

“We saw that students from lower-income schools had higher rates of bullying compared to students from higher-income schools. They also had less access to hobbies and felt more negative around schoolwork.

“Girls were lower in general wellbeing, as well as in sleep, friendship and family.’’

More than a third of students say they struggle with sleep every week.

Girls, sleep, safety, resilience and belonging

The survey finding is consistent with everything we know about raising girls in the twenty-first century. Husband-and-wife team, Kasey Edwards and Dr Christopher Scanlon, who wrote Raising Girls Who Like Themselves, pointed out that there are seven big issues girls face today:

  1. Anxiety and depression
  2. Body image
  3. Body ownership
  4. Over-scheduling and over-commitment
  5. Not equipped for adulthood
  6. Lack of meaningful relationships
  7. Patriarchal societal expectations

In other words, struggling with anxiety and depression (issue #1) can lead to lack of sleep, which can also be caused by over-scheduling (issue #4). Studies have also found that girls as young as six struggle with body image issues (issue #2), which can in turn exacerbate mental health issues and sleep problems.

The issues with body ownership (issue #3), patriarchal societal expectations (issue #7) and even cyberbullying challenges their sense of safety, while as parents, our tendency to over-parent is not equipping them for adulthood (issue #5) or building resilience.

At the same time, the lack of any meaningful relationships (issue #6) can erode any sense of belonging.

Helping our children feel better at school

While the survey’s recommendations to address these issues are aimed largely at schools and educational professionals, there are some steps parents can take.

Most importantly, it’s about helping our children identify a trusted adult at school who they can turn to for help. At the same time, schools need to partner with students and parents to take targeted actions to improve our children’s homework and sleep challenges.

Madonna King, award-winning journalist and author of Ten-Ager: What your daughter needs to know about the transition from child to teen, also has a few tips to help our girls feel better:

  1. Teach them how to navigate friendships healthily
  2. Remind them they don’t need to be someone else
  3. Let them know they are more than what they’re labelled
  4. Make sure they know they are worth our time

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